Cafe Racer Anniversary
5:01 am
Thu May 23, 2013

'We weren't going to let something like this stop us'

May 30, 2012 was a beautiful, sunny day. It was also the day when residents and students in North Seattle were told to stay indoors as police searched for the gunman who had opened fire inside a busy café.

When it was all over, five people had been shot dead and the gunman had taken his own life. 

The violence began at Cafe Racer, on the northern edge of Seattle's University District. 

One year later, this clubhouse for creative types is back to being a neighborhood coffee house, a bar, and a thriving music venue. Natalie Hall, 24-year-old cellist, comes almost every Sunday night to play in the Racer Sessions, an evening of experimental jazz.

This photo shows a recent Racer Sessions gathering at Cafe Racer.

"I tried it once and I loved it!” she said. “I can create my own stories through my instrument. It's like going to church on Sundays."

Hall says she has made new friends in the music community through Cafe Racer. Now in demand to play for pop bands, she was even asked to tour with hip-hop artist Macklemore last fall. 

The cafe is known for being open and accepting to the young, the old, and everyone in between. But sometimes a customer's behavior proves too erratic and, if things get out of hand, he or she is asked to leave.

That's what happened with Ian Stawicki, the shooter responsible for last year's tragedy. Stawicki, 40, suffered from mental illness and was often very angry.

Cafe owner Kurt Geissel directs his staff to handle troublesome customers gently.

"I always try to defuse it. (My staff can say,) 'The owner says you can't be in here.' That protects them. It's 'Oh, it's not you who are mad at me, but someone who isn't here.'" he said.

Leonard Meuse, left, briefly smiles while he serves customers at the newly re-opened Cafe Racer Friday, July 20, 2012, in Seattle.
Credit Elaine Thompson / Associated Press

Geissel says this is exactly how Leonard Meuse, the chef on duty on the day of the shooting, dealt with Stawicki. He told Stawicki he couldn't be at the cafe anymore per the owner's request. 

"And he (Stawicki) said, 'Where's the owner?' He pulled out his gun. So much for that. For trying to protect them." Geissel said.

Stawicki sprayed the place with bullets and shot Meuse in the armpit and the jaw. A regular customer was one of the first people to call 911.

"I'm at Roosevelt and 59th, Cafe Racer. There's been a shooting! Someone came in and shot a whole bunch of people. I'm hiding in the bathroom. We need help right away!" the customer told the dispatcher.

A half hour later, Stawicki made it across town to a parking lot on First Hill near Town Hall. He shot Gloria Koch Leonidas, a 52-year-old mother of two, point-blank in the head then sped off in her car.

The four people killed at the cafe were Joe Albanese, 52; Drew Kerikedes, 45; Kimberly Layfield, 38; and Donald Largen, 57. Meuse survived the shooting, and has returned to work since.

Two months after the shooting, after installing new floors, fresh paint, and a few remodeling touch-ups, Geissel reopened Cafe Racer.

"We weren't going to let something like this stop us,” said Cafe Racer owner Kurt Geissel.

"We're a community here, and I wanted to keep it going. We weren't going to let something like this stop us,” he said. “And Leonard was the deciding factor when he gave me the thumbs-up when I asked him if we should reopen. And that was right after he woke up in the hospital after he got shot.”

Geissel does not want to dwell on the shooting. He does not want Cafe Racer to be a poster child for stricter gun regulation and more oversight of the mentally-ill. He misses his friends dearly, but he wants to move forward.

Aaron Otheim, 27, is part of Cafe Racer's future as one of the main organizers of the Racer Sessions. Otheim says the tragedy served as a reminder to count his blessings.

"I'm more appreciative of all the positive things that are happening such as the Racer Sessions, or any other music-making situations, because who knows when that can all be taken away from you?” he said. 

“You take less for granted. You invest more time in the moment. I think we are all chewing on this one, and probably will be for the rest of our lives."

Cafe Racer will be closed on May 30.